Rhode Island may be small, but when it comes to tackling the problem of undocumented workers, they think big. Last month, Governor Donald Carcieri issued an executive order encouraging law enforcement officials - from state police to local cops - to determine the immigration status of anyone taken into custody and take immediate steps to deport those who are here illegally. Rhode Island has basically concluded that the federal government is not going to enforce the law, so they will take on the burden themselves.
For the record, the scale of the undocumented worker problem in Rhode Island is relatively small: the governor estimates that there are between 20,000 and 40,000 such workers in the state. What is not clear from the executive order is just how proactive the governor wants law enforcement to be: it's one thing to check people's status after they become involved in the criminal justice system; it's quite another to go out looking for immigration violators. Do you check for citizenship after a motor vehicle citation? After a domestic disturbance? When you hear people speaking Spanish?
The Workers Comp Perspective
The RI Workers Compensation Court has its own view view of the rights of undocumented workers, one which appears to be in conflict with the Governor's. Chief Judge George Healy recently told community advocates: "Believe me when I tell you, we do not inquire about the employees' documentation. That is not an issue that the court concerns itself with."
Earlier this year we blogged the story of Edgar Valasquez, an undocumented worker who was seriously injured in an accident involving a chain saw. His employer dropped a dime on Edgar, who was arrested and deported while on his way to a workers comp hearing. Eventually, Valasquez was able to collect his benefits (he currently is back home in Mexico).
Despite the assurances of Judge Healy, there is no way for the workers comp system to ensure the rights of injured illegal workers. The latter can pursue statutory benefits, but they do so in the shadow of the governor's new enforcement effort. Judge Healy cannot prevent law enforcement from arresting comp claimants outside his courtroom.
The governor has taken an additional step to disenfranchise undocumented workers: he has proposed a bill that would explicitly exclude them from workers comp coverage. This is a draconian approach to an increasingly unstable situation. Undocumented workers are already operating in a twilight zone of unfair labor practices and unsafe working conditions. If they lose their access to workers comp, they will be at the mercy of their marginal employers. Once hurt, these workers would have no access to benefits of any kind. They would have to disappear and try to make their way back home. (Cynics may think this acceptable, but it is unfair and unAmerican.)
Donald Carcieri invokes the authority vested in him as governor of the "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." It appears that he takes the "plantation" part of his title seriously. He is creating a segment of the workforce with few more rights than slaves.
We all agree that there is a problem here that desparately needs fixing. Despite the continuing inability of the Congress to fashion a coherent legislative approach, this is no time for individual states to jerry-rig their own solutions. A little patience is required. In this key policy area, the "Ocean State" will soon be lost at sea.